Foucault was a philosopher who studied history to understand the human
experience. Rather than a quest for correct interpretations or
meaning, his approach focused on exploring the conditions under which
meaning can occur. He was interested in the container that allows
content to take the shape it does.
Foucault investigated how a "culture" -- a broad grouping defined by an
historical age and geographical location, sharing a common language,
set of values, mode of perception, and other features -- "experiences
the propinquity of things, how it establishes the table of their
relationships and the order by which they must be considered" (The
Order of Things, p xxiv). He looked at the coherences by which
knowledge is gained and organized in various fields of science and
philosophy. His work shifted the focus from the deeds and discoveries
that caused a particular field to develop (a view that defines its
history as a progression from ignorance to knowledge) to one that seeks
what it was that allowed a particular way of thinking even to take
place, that enabled a discovery to have certain kinds of effects.
I find Foucault interesting in many ways. For one thing his philosophy
is applicable, and has a lot of power in it. For instance, in creating
successful online services or in product development we tend to look
for "the idea whose time has come." We look for the bright and
profitable idea. We do not, I think, spend enough time thinking about
"the time" or tabla or order of things -- although such an
understanding has much broader applicability than merely catching hold
of a likely idea. Tying this back to Geertz, I believe thick
description is a method that can be used to explore the "tabla."
Sounds good to me. Thanks for taking the lead on that!
Do we want to make any changes to how we do this, process-wise?
There's over 100 people in this group. About 5 of us contributed to
the first round. That seemed low, given the participation in the
I don't know how that will change the second round.
On one hand, it doesn't "cost" anything to have non-participants, on
the other hand, part of my motivation to contribute to the group is
to learn from others, in kind. When it's as unbalanced as it was this
first round, it starts to change that equation quite a bit.
I won't press the point if I'm the only one that cares, but I would
be up for a deal where you've got to put in to get out; a
no-spectators approach. If this is somewhat like a seminar class,
then it's okay for there to be a minimal level of contribution required.
Thanks for giving lurkers like me a kick in the pants to pipe up and
make contributions to this group.
My only excuse is "I was too busy to read the article", but I have been
reading all the discussion around Geertz with great interest (if that's
I will make an effort to add my two cents more often.
Plunkett Communications Inc.
>I think your comment to us lurkers is well deserved.
Note that in general with mailing lists (or any online forum) I
expect and enjoy the range of participation, where lots of people
feel great belonginess to a community while exhibiting different
behaviors. I've long since stood up for those folks who get labelled
But since this group was started to engage in a specific type of
interaction, for a specific purpose, I think the expectations need to
I certainly do not want to make anyone feel bad; I just want us to
collectively (as we are still in "planning" mode as we try this thing
out) work it out...
>In our defense, the Geertz reading was filled with obtuse jargon and
>made more difficult by the rambling/anecdotal manner in which it was
>written. I'm sure many were turned off by the somewhat esoteric
>writing, didn't bother to form an opinion and hence, didn't post.
>Just a guess though.
That would have been a great post!
I've flee-ed (?) from such stuff for a long time, and for me,
personally this group was a way to hold my nose and jump in a little
bit, get past my bais, WORK through the difficult prose, and see what
lay behind it, to try and join the party. I hoped that with the help
of others I could do that (others as motivators, others as
explainers, and so on).
> While I understand Geertz is a luminary in the world of
> anthropology a slightly more plain spoken essay would be a great
> next choice, especially considering the heterogeneous nature of the
> people in this group.
>I'd recommend something by Grant McCracken (it seems most of the
>early posters on this board had some kind of design background which
>would be good prep for his articles) or perhaps an article by Erving
>Goffman? Both have theoretical chops, but a less professorial tone.
It's funny you mention McCracken - so much of what he writes - at
least on his blog (http://www.cultureby.com/ - where the most recent
post as of this writing is actually about Geertz) - is dense and
beyond me. But there's a huge range. I've got Culture and Consumption
2 which starts off with a hilarious story about flying to Chicago to
be on Oprah while suffering a kidney stone or similar ailment. His
book "Big Hair" is one of my fave books; very very easy to read, but
very very enlightening.
[I'm not suggesting either of these necessarily as strong theory
pieces, but just that the style of writing varies between what I can
easily read and what I can not easily read]
So we've got Foucault as a suggestion for next piece. Can you suggest
a specific McCracken of Goffman piece?
We also had some other ideas early on in this conversation (which you
can see on the Google Groups page itself) - does anyone want to
resurrect a suggestion from there?
I didn't intend to lurk (though I agree - NOT a bad thing!) - and have read
almost every post with interest and even almost written several times! I
also thoroughly read and enjoyed the initial article and even looked up some
terms to prep for our 'conversation.' But - after the first few posts, it
became immediately apparent to me that I was in WAY over my head. (ha-ha - I
sound like my teenage son trying to get out of a hard class!). I'll
eventually pop back into the conversation when I have something worthy to
say - just give me time.
Anyway - sorry, I have no suggestions for reading material - but I do have a
comment regarding the group's direction.
Steve, you are so generous with your time for us that I truly think that you
should have the majority say in the direction (future reading materials) for
this group. What most interests you? Not saying you shouldn't elicit ideas
and articles, just that I'll follow your lead and if this next thing too is
over my head so be it - maybe the next will be more for me. It seems
reasonable (to me) that of 100 people - only 5 to 10 might have something to
comment on any one given topic.
I'm open to your ideas and suggestions!
Carol Shea, Olivetree Research, 513-321-3483, ca...@olivetreeresearch.com
"If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with
doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties." - Francis
Here are some passages that jumped out at me. I found some of his
comments about the "non-place of langauge" interesting. Maybe others
can offer some input:
"We shall never succeed in defining a stable relation of contained to
container between each of these categories and that which includes them
On page xvii, is he saying that the "container" or "tabula" itself -
"that enables thought to operate upon the entities of our world" - is
where langauge intersects space? What does this mean?
I would be curious to read others' interpretations of "utopias" vs.
"On what 'table', according to what grid of identities, similitudes,
analogies, have we become accustomed to sort out so many different and
similar things? What is this coherence...? ...There is nothing more
tentative, nothing more empirical ... then the process of establishing
an order among things."
I like this passage: "Order is, at one and the same time, that which is
given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines
the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence
except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and
it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself
in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of
I'm not sure exactly what the "modes of being", "modalities or order",
and the "ordering codes" are the Foucaultian sense.
Okay, I went to Wikipedia for more background as well:
Michael Foucault was "a French philosopher who held a chair at the
Collège de France, which he gave the title 'The History of Systems of
Thought'. Foucault is known for his critical studies of various social
institutions... His work concerned power and the relation between
power and knowledge, as well as ideas concerning "discourse" in
relation to the history of Western thought..." He has been described
as "postmodernist" or "post-structuralist", but has rejected the "post"
part and is more a self-proclaimed "structuralist" (Wikipedia defines
"structuralism" as "an approach in academic disciplines that explores
the relationships between fundamental elements of some kind, upon which
some higher mental, linguistic, social, cultural etc 'structures' are
built, through which then meaning is produced within a particular
person, system, or culture."
Love this stuff even though I feel I am only grasping at the corners.
McCracken online - do you see anything in
http://cultureby.com/books/plenit/html/toc.html that might be a
relevant read for us?
After re-reading the preface and getting clear about what I think
Foucault was talking about, I scribbled down what turned out to be a
rather lengthy dissertation. I've decided it might promote a better
flow of conversation if I respond directly to some of the questions
Natasha posed, and then post my long musings separately.
Natasha asked what was meant by "where language intersects space."
This is, I believe, is just another way to say something Foucault
repeats over and over, which is that thought and language are needed to
make the order of things manifest.
A heterotopia would be a place where things are NOT coherent with one
another. In contrast, the utopia coined by Thomas Moore was not only
coherent, but it was also very much a place (streets, buildings,
etcetera as well as a philosophy). I think this is meant as a bit of a
joke ("utopia" meaning "not a place"), but it is also used to
underscore the necessity of language and thought in "siting" or placing
things within a tabula. Borges' ridiculous taxonomy, for example,
would only make sense in some "place" that looks like a heterotopia to
us -- because it just does not scan in our tabula. So a tabula could
also be called a homotopia. (Maybe also a bit of a joke.)
And by modalities of order, Foucault means subsystems of thought that
give us our ways of knowing and making things happen. For us in the
Modern era, these would include economics, biology, and anthropology,
among others. In the Classical era these would include the production
of wealth (not economics) and taxonomy (not biology). Since
anthropology was invented in the Modern age (that is, since the early
1800s), "man as lens on the world" was not a modality before that time.
Foucault posits four layers of order. First there are the set of codes
we are given by virtue of being born into a particular culture (and by
this he does not specifically mean anthropological culture). This
cultural order or tabula is generally invisible to us. It's what we
think with, and it's what governs how we interact with the various
"modalities" of order that are given to us. (More on modalities in a
Then there are scientific and philosophical theories about order
itself. Foucault calls this reflection upon order or "reflective
order." (It could be called orderology or orderological theory, but
that sounds very stupid.) We'd have to place the work of Foucault's
book itself, and anything we might say about it here, into the category
of reflective order.
But Foucault also states there's an inherent order to a thing. In the
"inner law" of a thing there is something that enables a network of
relationships between that thing and other things to manifest in
thought and language. This concept, that order DOES exist, and is not
only a human construct, is important to the rest of Foucault's
exploration. Note that he isn't saying that a PARTICULAR order exists
-- or, if by chance it does, finding it is not of interest to him.
Instead, he is interested in a fourth layer of order, which is the
experience of order. There are times when a culture achieves some
amount of distance from its own codified orders. At those times, it's
possible for one to recognize that one's cultural orders exist, and
that they aren't the only ones or even the best ones. But more than
this, at these moments, one senses that beneath anyone's cultural
order, things are, in themselves, capable of being ordered. In other
words, order does exist. This experience of order does not happen
through thought or language, and it certainly doesn't happen through
theory. So it occurs, in a way, *between* cultural and reflective
order, and in a way, it precedes all the rest. Thoughts and theories
come right afterwards, but are just an attempt to express the
experience of order.
Foucault's book is a look at the development of the fourth layer of
order, the experience of order, in Western culture from the 16th
century through now. He looks at the different and changing ways the
Western culture has made the existence of order manifest through the
various available modalities of order. By modalities of order he means
subsystems of thought that give us, in any age, our ways of knowing and
making things happen.
So, in the Classical age (mid 1600s through early 1800s), modalities of
order included theories of representation, language, natural history,
wealth, and so on. There was a complete coherence among these
modalities. Then, at the beginning of the Modern age (early 1800s
through now), this coherence changed completely. The theory of
representation disappeared, language lost its central role, people
studied the functioning of organisms rather than searched for taxonomic
characteristics, and the study of man -- anthropology -- enters Western
knowledge for the first time. Naturally, there is a complete coherence
among these modern modalities as well.
Foucault has a bit to say about the study of man and its pre-eminence
as a way of understanding the whole world. For one thing, he remarks
that it most likely a "rift" in the order of things, a temporary
invention that will probably disappear when the next tabula comes in.
Beyond the preface, the book explores the tabulas of Renaissance,
Classical, and Modern epochs. It does so in such a deeply interesting
and valuable way that I recommend everyone get this book and read just
any one chapter. For example, the chapter on Representation identifies
"resemblance" as a key way of organizing all knowledge in the
Renaissance. Walnuts, for instance, were once known to be good for
headaches, because the resemblance of walnuts to the brain is clear,
and God's ordering of the signs of the world this way is obviously done
so that nature can speak to us. The section on Don Quixote is a
fascinating piece of both literary criticism (it will affect how you
think of anything relating to this famous windmill-tilter), and is an
archeology of the great shift in the tabulas of Renaissance and
Much more can be said. Hopefully this thread will continue to be
interesting and useful to folks in this discussion.
Just a meta comment - some people have moved ahead with this piece
and are discussing it - I don't know that we "officially" agreed that
was our next piece, or did anything structural like set a timeline
and a deliverable etc.
And maybe that isn't how this group will end up working; maybe people
will just be reading stuff and talking about it. I would personally
prefer more common focus, but as our last discussion about what to
read seemed to suggest (and our first one, too, for that matter) is
that there are a range of interests here.
Hopefully this doesn't read as critical; we're trying to
self-organize to do something relatively unique and I think that's
going to take a while.
Maybe we work in parallel, and maybe we just need some nomenclature
and other communication practices to be more effective as a group.
Let me propose one, and maybe it can evolve....
Nominate a piece you want to read. Let's assume that we don't need to
have it "seconded" - offer some structure to what you'd like to have
come back from whoever in the group is into it, and I guess my
default would be some assignment (what kind of summary or output
should people provide) and a timeframe.
We don't all need to read the piece or submit something. Clearly if 4
people do, we've already got a lot of good content (from past
examples where it's been great stuff). And, we could have someone
else do something similar, nominate another piece, either at the same
time, or overlapping. With some good use of subject lines and so on,
we could easily manage a number of overlapping things.
This takes the need away for me to be some curriculum deciding
entity, and seems to suit the diversity of interests and
participation. Ideally we'll see some ideas cross over as people read
reports from others?
Thoughts on this? Or anyone going to put forth a piece they want us
to read and discuss?
Steve Portigal -- http://www.portigal.com
blog is now at http://www.portigal.com/blog